Sir Nigel has become one of the chief chroniclers of whatever it is that is awakening in Zimbabwe, but his wife is not pleased.
An accountant by training, four years ago he took to tweeting about his country’s poisonous politics. For his Twitter handle, he dropped his surname (Mugamu) and adopted the honorific (a nickname coined years earlier by some Australian university friends who considered his taste in smart trousers so haughty it was worthy of the British upper echelons).
Sir Nigel’s observations resonated, so he set up 263Chat, borrowing Zimbabwe’s dialling code for the name. The social media outlet now has 130,000 followers on Twitter and 40,000 Facebook likes. It occupies the middle ground, a zone long abandoned by the Herald, the mouthpiece of Robert Mugabe’s government, and the country’s scarcely less tendentious opposition papers.
Beside the manicured lawn of a colonial-era venue in uptown Harare on a blissfully warm spring morning, Sir Nigel tells me he now has half a dozen staff handling newsgathering, editorial and advertising. 263’s posts chronicle the street protests and ruling-party infighting that are challenging Mugabe’s authority to a degree rarely seen since he took power in 1980.
As “chief storyteller”, Sir Nigel works all hours. “Admit it,” his wife recently admonished, “you’d rather be married to 263.” Sir Nigel is trying to make breakfast more often.
I’ve come to Harare to give a talk about my book. Given that it is called The Looting Machine, and that the chapter on Zimbabwe recounts how the regime has used a combination of violence and offshore secrecy to pillage the country’s diamonds, I spent a restless flight wondering how much to censor myself.
Zimbabwe is not North Korea. But everyone I talk to assumes the audience will include an informant for Mugabe’s secret police. The Central Intelligence Organisation reports directly to the president, a man who once declared he had “degrees in violence”. Critics have a way of vanishing. Either that, or their cars “crash” in improbable ways. A local journalist tells me about a call he recently received from what Zimbabweans call “The System”. By that, he means the shadow state comprising the presidency, the ruling party, the security forces and the CIO — precisely the people looting the diamonds. The voice warned the journalist that a “tragedy” might befall his family if he carried on writing critical articles. He has no intention of desisting. But his face wears a troubled expression as he remembers the call. “It plants a seed,” he says.
Hot Springs looks tepid. The low-hanging stones in the scrubland have been plucked. Most of the miners have departed, along with the prostitutes and smugglers.
In the end, after hearing tales of what Zimbabweans have endured in order to tell the truth to power, I blurt it all out. I’m ashamed of having hesitated but comprehend a little more clearly how such regimes muzzle dissent.
We reach Christmas Pass after dark. I’ve made the trip before, three years ago, and remember the magnificent vistas of the slopes that sweep down to the diamond fields, now concealed by the night, like sleeping elephants.
We descend through switchbacks to Mutare, the last town before the militarised mining zones. Grabbing a bite, I’m reminded of Zimbabweans’ virtuosity with names. (Mutare itself derives from the Shona for gold, another of the bounty of elements that have brought much bloodshed to this part of the country.) My companions tell me they have friends called Method, Norest and Exhibit. A man called Medicine became a doctor. We can only hope the name badge of the young lad behind the counter at a Mutare chicken shop proves less determinative. It reads: Delinquency.
A decade back, Hot Springs was a boom town, Zimbabwe’s answer to Kimberley, the epicentre of South Africa’s diamond rush 150 years ago. Like Kimberley, the chief legacy has been some big holes in the ground. There were rich pickings around Hot Springs for a few years. Even after the security forces brutally asserted their control in an onslaught called Operation No Return, miners could still make their fortune, provided they cut in the soldiers. Such was the fast cash that one abstemious local referred to the town as Sodom and Gomorrah. Locals would buy Mercedes even though they couldn’t drive — just for the radio and the status.
But as we drive through, Hot Springs looks decidedly tepid. The low-hanging stones in the surrounding scrubland have been plucked. Most of the miners have departed, along with the prostitutes and smugglers. Mugabe claims that $15bn of diamond revenues have vanished. The number seems bizarre — both for its size and the regime’s complicity in said vanishing.
Zimbabwe has the feeling of a country tentatively starting to say unsayable things. At the top of a red-brown hill not far from Hot Springs, there is a church. Emissaries from the various mining zones assemble inside. Not in secret — they are doing nothing illegal — but with an anxious air.
Lovemore, an articulate retired telecoms manager, speaks about his relative, a young man called Guard, who had snuck into the red zone, as the areas cordoned off by mining companies are known, in the hope of snaffling a diamond or two. Soldiers shot him dead. “Guard was 28,” says Lovemore.
Another delegate, middle-aged and sorrowful, adds that effluence from the mines is turning the rivers opaque, camouflaging the crocodiles. One of the predators snuck up on a child and took her foot. A photograph is passed round, showing a footless girl wearing a pair of modified tights and a fretful expression.
The Kimberley Process, a scheme born to counter the “blood diamonds” that funded wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Angola, assesses whether stones from particular countries contribute to conflict. Zimbabwe’s are deemed not to — state-sponsored violence is apparently considered acceptable — and so mining companies are free to sell them wherever they please. Most are ugly chunks of carbon, used for drill bits and such. But some are fine gems, perfect for proposing with.
As we drive back to Harare, the late afternoon sunshine falls across undulating fields with their stubble of drought-blackened maize stalks. “The light, it’s … lovely,” I say to my companions, wincing as I hear myself apply so bland an adjective to such a soul-stirring landscape. I spend the next half an hour contemplating it through the car’s window. Perhaps the right word exists only in Shona. The light here is a substance in its own right, the opposite of Milton’s “darkness visible”, like the light from a diamond. It’s like the thrill of something secret being revealed.
Tom Burgis is the FT’s investigations correspondent